Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker
When you share your life with a beloved pet, the years fly by all too quickly. One day your children come home with a tiny kitten they found under the neighbour’s porch. In no time, those same kids are attending university and that endearing kitten is a long-treasured member of your family.
The good news is that our pets are living longer than ever. Thanks to vaccinations and improvements in veterinary care, many domestic animals now live well into their teens — and a few even reach a third decade.
It’s important to remember that pets age on a different timeline than their owners. The adage about one human year equaling seven pet years really only applies to a fairly narrow range in the life of a dog or cat. If you think of human aging as a diagonal line, pet aging looks more like bell curve. There is a comparatively short youth, followed by a much more rapid progression of old age.
Cats and small breeds of dog mature quite rapidly, generally reaching physical and sexual maturity between 9 and 12 months of age. So a year-old cat or small dog is essentially at the same stage of life as your typical high school senior. (Parents of teenagers may wish their own kids could sail though adolescence in a few short months!) Larger breeds of dog may take anywhere from 18 months to two years to reach maturity.
From there, pets tend to age fairly uniformly — but by the age of six or seven years, the aging process again begins to vary widely. Among giant breeds of dogs, for example, ages eight to 10 are the geriatric years. Many of these lovely breeds, sadly, do not live into their teens.
For healthy cats and most other dogs, however, these years represent the prime of life. Indeed, cats and some toy breed dogs may be well into their early or mid teens before owners start to notice the physical signs typical of advancing age. On the other hand, larger dogs — such as retrievers, shepherd-type breeds and others of similar size — will begin to show signs of aging earlier.
Regardless of their chronological age, once pets reach their geriatric years they begin to show the same kinds of physical changes that we see in ourselves as the retirement years approach.
Many owners become concerned when they notice the cloudy blue haze that sometimes appears in the eyes of older dog or cat. It shouldn’t be cause for alarm, though. If there’s no sign of discharge or redness, and no evidence (such as blinking or rubbing) to suggest it’s causing pain, then what you’re seeing is likely just a natural consequence of advancing age — a gradual hardening of the lens of the eye, which is the structure that allows us to adjust our sight for fine motor tasks. Unless your pets like to read or do needlepoint, they won’t be troubled by it.
A progressive loss of hearing is another common sign of aging; it may even afford a degree of comfort to a senior pet, as it does help turn down the volume if the household is a particularly boisterous. Owners, however, sometimes find it a bit distressing to discover that their pets don’t always come when called anymore. (Then, again, if you have cats you’re probably used to being ignored.)
Arthritis in geriatric pets is as common as it is among senior citizens. If you live long enough, the years of wear and tear on your joints begin to add up. The joints become less flexible — and in advanced cases can cause quite a lot of pain. Cats and dogs usually signal this pain through a decrease in their normal activities, or a reluctance to do things they used to do, such as jumping up on a bed or climbing stairs. Dogs suffering from chronic pain may pant even when they are neither hot nor tired. Pets may also sleep excessively to escape the discomfort.
Some changes in behaviour can indicate a potentially serious health issue. Owners of senior pets should be especially alert for any change in appetite. An animal that gradually loses its appetite or that must be coaxed into eating with treats should see a veterinarian. The change may be caused by infected, loose or painful teeth, or may signal the nausea resulting by an internal organ problem. Cats or dogs that eat voraciously but still lose weight might be suffering from diabetes, kidney disease or even cancer. Excessive thirst is also a warning sign. It’s a common symptom of several serious but treatable diseases.
Keep an eye out for these signs. Pets, like people, stand the the best chance of recovery when illness is diagnosed in the early stages.
Next time, we’ll discuss ways to help keep your aging pets happy and comfortable in their twilight years. There is nothing quite so comforting as the warmth of a old cat snoozing in your lap, or a loving look from the faithful, grey-muzzled dog you’ve raised from a rambunctious pup. There are many things you can do to make sure this will be a wonderful time for both of you.
Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.